Masculinity, subjectivity and psychohistory

Having just been reading John MacInnes’ claim that too many scholars see masculinity as a characteristic of men, rather than as an ideology or a fantasy, I then came across a recent article by Michael Roper (Michael Roper, “Slipping out of view: subjectivity and emotion in gender history”, History Workshop Journal 59 (2005), 57-72), which argues almost the opposite. Roper thinks historians and scholars more generally have focused on masculinity as a social or cultural construction rather than as an aspect of personality. He sees this as part of a trend he associates particularly with Joan Scott’s theories of using gender as a theoretical concept in ‘mainstream’ political and diplomatic history. An emphasis on how the ideology and language of masculinity/femininity was deployed politically moved study away from work on subjectivity.

This emphasis on studying gender as symbolism in the public sphere may be one of the reasons for a lack of studies of gender and subjectivity, but I think there are several other ones. The most obvious, for pre-modern historians, is how difficult it is to get access to anyone’s subjectivity on any topic. There are so few texts which provide the personal details of interest, and those that do exist tend to be heavily structured to make a particular point (e.g. Augustine’s Confessions). Even when you do start to get very subjective accounts that are relatively little shaped to suit an audience (e.g. Pepys’ Diaries), they’re rare enough that you have to wonder about whether their writers are typical in any way. Michael Roper is looking at letters from the front in the First World War, which is one of the rare cases where you have got lots of personal material, from a range of men with similar backgrounds and in a situation with extreme pressures on masculinity. There, perhaps you can find something revealing, but it seems much harder in other circumstances.

I think the other answer to Roper’s question: ‘Why has the study of cultural attributes been so difficult to integrate with the study of subjective experience?’ is that it runs into the whole vexed problem of psychohistory and whether there is anything useful that can be gained from this approach. Psychohistory is one of those techniques that I keep on going back to just to see if there’s anything useful there, but always getting put off by actually reading the material. The problem is obvious. Freud, on the basis of a few case studies, produced grand universal theories about the workings of the mind, which now seem to be largely discredited. A variety of other authors have developed/reinterpreted Freud’s work without (as far as I’m aware) producing anything much more useful. Psychohistory sees early experiences as key, but these are precisely the ones we know least about for almost all historical figures. Unlike the analysist, the historian can’t ask for more questions to elucidate a topic. As a result, psychohistory seems to waver between bland generalisations about what a typical childhood would be like in some historical period (as if you can just tweak the nineteenth-century Viennese experience a bit and get similar answers) and the ‘great man’ syndrome, that World War II was due to Hitler’s parents not loving him enough. (The big problem for psychohistorians is why in that case most people with horrible childhoods don’t go on to become genocidal maniacs).

My question for today: has anyone found psychological/psychoanalytical studies or theories that do seem to be of use to historians? If so, please let me know.


One thought on “Masculinity, subjectivity and psychohistory

  1. Wow – I was surprised and pleased I read this article in full; no skimming, reading.

    If finding an answer has to rely purely on subjective research whose subjectivity do we consider? Pepys, as far as we know was not writing as an academic qualitative researcher (in the accepted terms required today)though he would have been aware, I am sure, that his observations, at some point, would be read. It is easier to consider this kind of work within its time, as being a spontaneous piece of social writing. There are similarities with the WW1 writings from that point of view.

    If you discard these types of spontaeneous writings, what are you left with – that is the conundrum. I defy any academic, psychohistorian, psychophilosopher, et al, to come up with a truly acceptable answer in good, honest, basic terms.

    Freud is another kettle of fish and he was discussing sexuality within the gender terms described. Not all his work has been discredited, mostly the sexually based material has come in for severe scrutiny and criticism and from a personal viewpoint, I would say, rightly so. Strip the sexuality away and you are left with more questions and probably no answers to the question.


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